For this series, we’ll be following Paste’s own Curmudgeon, Geoffrey Himes, as he sets out on a massive road trip across the South, exploring musical landmarks, traditions and history along the way. Second stop: Kansas City, Missouri.
The most moving song I heard at this year’s Folk Alliance Conference in Kansas City was Gaelynn Lea’s “Watch the World Unfold.” “Pushing up, pushing up through the dirt just like a seed,” the 33-year-old Minnesotan sang in her chirping soprano over an eerie, raga-like violin loop, “but you’re never quite a flower; you feel more just like a weed.”
The song draws its power from the tension between a young person’s optimistic plans and the obstacles that life throws in the way of those hopes, a conflict reinforced by the paradox of the sunny, childlike vocal melody and the cloudy, ominous swirl of violin harmony. It’s also crucial that the song is sung in the second person: This is as much about you, the listener, she’s saying, as it is about me, the singer.
That’s important, because it would be easy to get distracted by Lea’s disability and thus miss the universality of her songs. A congenital condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, or “brittle bones disease,” has left her barely taller than her 7/8th-size fiddle. Her arms and legs are crooked and shortened from the illness, so she cradles her instrument between her knees like a cello. She bows it like a bass as she sits cross-legged on the blue cushion upon her motorized wheelchair.
But the strangeness of her disease fades away after a few minutes, overtaken by the steady gaze of her confidence and the strength of her performance. She begins “Watch the World Unfold” by sampling her long bow strokes to establish a tonal base and then adding a pizzicato rhythmic pattern on top.
Only then does she start singing, creating a close-harmony duet between voice and violin, as if she were Art Garfunkel and the lower-pitched fiddle part was Paul Simon, her songwriting hero. The forward momentum adds urgency to the second verse: “Driving through, driving through, you want to know where you are going. But the windshield’s always dirty, and you never get to see.”
After a fiddle solo that lends a South Asian vibrato to the questing nature of the lyrics, she asks the listener, “What makes you think that you’ll ever get there? What makes you think you deserve to know? Who are you really, are you so important? Take a look around and watch the world unfold.”
That has been Lea’s guiding principle all along. When she was in the fifth grade, she got the only perfect score on the musical listening test given to her class. The teacher recognized that this young student in Duluth had a rare talent if only they could figure out how to help her get it out. They tried to find a violin that would fit on her small shoulders but nothing worked until they had her try to play it like a cello. That succeeded, and the world unfolded in a way she had never expected.
“My vibrato is different from most violinists,” she points out, “because my bow approaches the lower strings first, like a cellist’s, while most violin bows approach the higher strings first. I didn’t plan it that way, but I took advantage of it once I realized what was going on.”
She took classical violin lessons through high school, but after graduation she developed a crush on a boy who was into fiddle music, and she started attending local jam sessions. She fell in love with Celtic fiddle tunes and the improvisational freedom they provided. She soon formed a Duluth folk duo with Andy Gabel.
“Once I was jamming with Charlie Parr at the local farmer’s market,” she recalls, “when Alan Sparhawk of Low wandered by. That night I woke in bed and there was a message on my phone: Alan had texted me about getting together to work on some music. And we did the score for The Penalty, a silent film starring Lon Chaney. The day before our first show together after the movie, I spontaneously wrote my first song. I showed it to him at our band practice, and he said, ‘This is great; we’ll do it tomorrow night.’ Alan did the looping in Low’s music, and he taught me how to do it. He even gave me a looping pedal.”
This was not what Lea had set out to do. She was a poli-sci major at McAlister College and had envisioned a career as a lawyer and advocate for disability rights. But the world kept unfolding, and her involvement in music kept growing. It turned decisively in that direction a year ago, when National Public Radio’s Bob Boilen called her to say that she was the 2016 Tiny Desk Contest winner. This led to a special taping at NPR’s D.C. headquarters (with Sparhawk helping out) and a Tiny Desk Tour of the West Coast.
“It came at the perfect time,” Lea marvels. “A year earlier I wouldn’t have been ready; I wasn’t confident enough yet. But now I am, and my husband Paul has taken some time off from his job, so I can do my first real tour on my own. The main trouble with my disability is it makes it hard to travel, and Paul is great about that.”
After “Watch the World Unfold,” Lea played “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun,” the love song for Paul that won the Tiny Desk Contest. The lyrics don’t soft-pedal the challenges of romance (“a complex vintage wine, all rotted leaves and lemon rind”) nor the hard work it requires (“We pulled the weeds out till the dawn, nearly too tired to carry on”). But those acknowledgements—and the enchanting melody—make the ultimate affirmation (“And I love you”) all the more persuasive.
As she tours many cities for the first time this year, Lea is realizing that music can be as effective an advocacy tool for the disabled as lawyering or political campaigning.
“It’s hard to separate my disability from the rest of my life,” she admits. “I don’t think about it every day, but I can never ignore it for too long. The disabled are a population that is too often left out of most social-justice discussions. But now I have a platform to talk about it.”
Lea performs at the South by Southwest Music Conference on St. Patrick’s Day.